Ancient human discovered under the North Sea

Press release - 17 June 2009

Skull fragment discovered in the North Sea is the oldest human bone discovered underwater

Scientists, including a member of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project, have identified a fragment of Neanderthal skull in sediments extracted from the bottom of the North Sea, according to research announced today. The skull fragment, which belonged to a young adult male, was found among animal remains and artefacts dredged up 15 kilometres off the coast of the Netherlands. The animal fossils date from the late Pleistocene (130,000–12,000 yrs ago) and the artefacts include flakes and small handaxes, like those associated with Neanderthals from about 60,000 years ago.

Natural History Museum palaeontologist, Dr Chris Stringer, explains, ‘This is a very significant discovery because the skull fragment represents the first ancient human found below the sea. The North Sea is one of the world’s richest areas for mammal fossils because of its relatively shallow southern region, much of which is less than 50 metres deep. Woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, horse, reindeer and other Pleistocene mammal fossils are brought ashore every year by the fishing industry and other dredging operations, and some fishermen now concentrate on collecting fossils rather than fish. Who knows what else we may find.’

During late Pleistocene cold stages, sea levels fell as much as 100 metres, exposing areas of land that are now submerged under the North Sea. These areas were inhabited by ice age mammals such as horse, reindeer, woolly rhino and mammoth. The finds demonstrate early humans were there, too. Thousands of fossils and hundreds of artefacts have been collected by fishermen and dredgers over the last two centuries, and the Natural History Museum alone has over 100 mammoth remains from Doggerland, as the now-submerged region has become known. About 60,000 years ago, Neanderthals were crossing this region to reach Britain, where their artefacts are associated with mammoth fossils at the site of Lynford in Norfolk. And now, for the first time, fossil evidence of these Neanderthals is available.

Professor Stringer explains, ‘For most of the last half-a-million years, sea levels were significantly lower than today, and at times, substantial areas of the current North Sea were dry land. There were extensive river systems with wide river valleys, lakes and floodplains and these areas were rich habitats for large herds of herbivores and the animals that preyed on them, including early humans. Isotope analyses of this North Sea Neanderthal match other specimens in suggesting a diet dominated by meat.’

Ends

Notes for editors

 

  • Out of the North Sea: the Zeeland Ridges Neanderthal is published in the Journal of
    Human Evolution
  • The skull fragment was studied by an international group of scientists, including Professor Jean-Jacques Hublin from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology at Leipzig in Germany, and Professor Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University, a member of the AHOB2 project.
    It was found in sediment from an extraction zone located in the so-called Zeeland Ridges area. The fragment’s shape best matches with the frontal bones of late Pleistocene Neanderthals, notably those of La Chapelle-aux-Saints and La Ferrassie 1 (both in France), roughly 50,000–60,000 years old. It has a strong browridge and a small lesion caused by disease.
  • The Museum of Antiquities at Leiden in The Netherlands will host a small exhibition around the skull fragment, opening on 16 June 2009.
  • The question of the earliest occupation of Europe and Britain has been the focus of heated debates within archaeological circles for the past century. Natural History Museum palaeontologist, Professor Chris Stringer directs the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project,  which is investigating questions about the timing and nature of the earliest human occupation of Britain, and whether Britain was completely abandoned by humans for over 100,000 years, between 180,000 and 60,000 years ago.
  • The AHOB project is a collaboration involving archaeologists, palaeontologists and earth scientists from the Natural History Museum, the British Museum, Royal Holloway and other institutes, and is funded by the Leverhulme Trust.
  • Winner of the Best Archaeological Book award in 2008, Chris Stringer’s Homo britannicus outlines the results of AHOB1 and discusses Doggerland and the Neanderthals of Lynford.
  • Winner of Visit London’s 2008 Kids Love London Best Family Fun Award, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries